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White: This is your mind on mushrooms

When you take psychedelics, you can have a plethora of seemingly enlightening experiences. Are these spiritual awakenings, or a view deeper into the psyche?
Image by Mary Ellen Ritter

Editor’s note: While the culture surrounding drugs like psilocybin and dimethyltryptamine is changing, possession of psychedelic substances is still illegal in the majority of U.S. cities.

We’ve all seen movies where someone slaps what looks like a small stamp on their tongue and suddenly the world around them bursts with color. Pop culture has portrayed psychedelics like this for decades: as typically used by hippies at some festival reminiscent of Burning Man or sitting around a fire listening to someone strum the acoustic guitar.

Despite the portrayal of psychedelics in media, there is more to them than long hair and Grateful Dead t-shirts. In fact, psychedelics like psilocybin – the active chemical in magic mushrooms – could hold the key to greater spiritual connectivity and cognitive awareness.

“Psychedelic means mind manifesting,” said Zane Crabtree, the president of the Psychedelic Education Club of Minnesota. Crabtree will graduate from the University of Minnesota this semester with degrees in neuroscience and psychology.

For Crabtree, psychedelics were an entry point into understanding spirituality.

“When I first used psychedelics, I was not a religious person,” he said. After trying psychedelics, however, things were different.

“I certainly was faced with something that you would call spiritual,” he said. “When I’m thinking about a spiritual experience, I think of experiences people have encountering something that is other than self.”

Psychedelics are hallucinatory in nature, so it makes sense that under these drugs one would perceive something they believe to be other than themselves. However, can you write it off as a hallucination when you learn something you were never previously privy to?

Growing up, Crabtree said he had grown up on fast food, rarely ate vegetables and had limited knowledge of healthy living. But, in one psychedelic experience, he said he was shown in great detail the connection between the body and everything around it and how he should be treating his body.

Was this information from an external source? Or was it pulled from somewhere deeper in the subconscious? The thalamus could hold the answers to these questions.

“The thalamus is a relay hub for information in the brain,” Crabtree said. “The thalamus is saying ‘this information is going to go forward and this information is going to stop here.’ Under the influence of psychedelics, that information is less gated.”

This ease of gating can be seen in the form of synesthesia, the experience of mixing senses, Crabtree said.

If these substances can make someone smell sounds or hear textures, it isn’t far-fetched to think they could connect you to information deep in your subconscious. Things you didn’t even know you knew. Maybe even information that you never learned in the first place – complex understanding of the self hardwired within us. Psychedelics can be the key to unlocking this information.

“The more spiritual board would say this information came from somewhere outside of myself,” Crabtree said. “It feels like that information is from outside of you, this is not necessarily true.”

Another substance that can grant the user these spiritual experiences is dimethyltryptamine (DMT), Crabtree said.

In one DMT experience, Crabtree said he met six creatures, not quite human and seemingly of higher levels of being and intelligence. They had tried to relay some kind of information to him, but he couldn’t quite understand. “This is what I’m principally interested in in my journey through academia,” Crabtree said. “I’m interested in what the heck is going on.”

“I’m not a religious person,” Crabtree continued. “I don’t believe there is a god like people in the western world would claim there to be, but on the other hand, I am having these psychedelic experiences where I am experiencing something other than myself.”

He hypothesizes the simplest way to explain these experiences is that all of the information that guides these trips is from deep within the user’s mind – information they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

There is a saying that the simplest explanation is often the right one. The brain is a very complex system we are not even close to understanding. However, does that entirely rule out the spiritual element?

Experiences like déjà vu, or dreaming something before it happens are reported all the time. These experiences could hold some advanced, metaphysical properties we have yet to discover in the brain. Psychedelics could help us connect to those properties. Maybe even the universe as a whole.

“It seems like my consciousness is the peak of a wave and under psychedelics, it calms the waters, and I flow back into the sea. Then I can notice how I’m connected to everything else and my conscious experience is, in substance, just like everything else,” Crabtree said.

Psychedelics aren’t all consciousness expansion and higher beings. There is potential for bad experiences. On psychedelics, people can experience terrifying hallucinations that may last for hours.

“People should be very cautious when taking psychedelics, but I would like to reword what is called a bad trip to a difficult trip,” Crabtree said.

Though they can be frightening and uncomfortable experiences, these difficult trips can teach you a lot. Some of the most influential experiences you can have from psychedelics are through difficult trips, Crabtree said.

One shouldn’t actively seek out having a difficult trip on psychedelics, but if you do have one, there is still space to learn from it.

Set and setting are huge in terms of safe psychedelic usage. Your set is your mindset and comfort level, and a safe setting means being in a safe place with a sober friend to ground you if you are having a particularly difficult time. First-timers should also start slow and with a low dosage, Crabtree said.

There are still many phenomena that are difficult to explain concerning psychedelics. While some of their effects on the mind are still a mystery, psychedelics can be a great way to explore yourself and the world around you from a unique perspective.

“It’s a good idea to write the next day about your experience or talk with someone that you trust,” Crabtree said. “So whatever you experienced, good or bad. You could try to take something from that and try to learn.”


The Psychedelics Education Club will be hosting the Steve Rummler HOPE Network on Nov. 19 to educate on the effective use of Naloxone to treat an overdose. For more information, contact the club at [email protected].

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